My reflections after the Future Libraries hackathon

Books, yo

Last weekend I was a mentor at a Product Forge hackathon. Product Forge hackathons bring together designers, developers and entrepreneurs over 3 days to develop new ideas, overcome challenges and make new connections. Professionals, students, graduates and freelancers formed small cross-functional teams to to look at the topic of libraries and to consider what the libraries of the future might be. They worked on a product prototype over the 3 days with support from industry experts at the Scottish Libraries and Information Council and the Carnegie UK Trust. In the past, hacks for public services haven’t always worked as well as they might have because there were no strong links between practitioners, technologists and creatives. Essentially you’d have a room full of super talented makers with no insight into the real gnarly problems out there in services. Until this year with Product Forge’s dedicated support and method of organising hacks for public services (start with the service then organise the makers) my benchmark for a hack was the NHS Hack Scotland weekend back in the heady days of 2013. Between then and now I had been a little concerned about public sector hack fatigue because you couldn’t throw a rock in Scotland’s central belt without hitting a hack (or indeed a ‘hack’ or ‘jam‘) and I was hearing from some folk in the tech community at least that it was starting to just feel like being asked to work for free. And that’s not a good feeling. Anyway, Product Forge is where it’s at and I hope more public services (I include charities and social enterprises in that term) will approach Product Forge if they need help getting a hack together. Here are some of my reflections from the Future Libraries hack. I’m going high level here. If you want details about the event overall, check out this short film of the highlights.

Discussion about what is digital exclusion, skill and literacy really is

 I talked to some folk about the level of commentary and research coming out lately that I’m not entirely comfortable with because it links lack of digital skill and literacy with a very narrow set of expectations around how computers and the Internet ‘should’ be used. Read: If you can’t use a keyboard or the Office suite you may be considered unskilled or digitally excluded. I need to call bullshit. I have been writing something for months about this particular hive of bees in my bonnet and I just can’t get it out because more and more research about ‘digital exclusion’ keeps appearing. So hold tight.

Really great interaction between library staff and participants

This helped participants understand the lack of technology resource some people have. While teams were getting the details of their ideas together there were some assumptions about how some citizens might be able to access a web based service or app when they are away from the library. I distinctly remember meeting a librarian at SCVO’s #DigiScotFest in 2014 who said, ‘Libraries are digital A&Es’ and that is still very much the case. Back in 2014 the digital by default revolution was in full swing and libraries were getting hammered with jobseekers and other benefits claimants who were trying to wrap their heads around using all these new digital services. Fast forward two and a bit years and libraries are still feeling the pressure, however, even with a demonstrable increase in mobile internet access amongst those with limited resources, folk are still flocking to libraries to be able to interact with some government services. This is related to my point above and again, I’ll be writing something about what I think is going on but (spoiler alert!) I suspect the same assumptions about how digital services ‘should’ be accessed and used are actually creating the exclusion we’re all clucking our tongues about. Maybe we should stop othering folk considered to be ‘disadvantaged’ and have a look at the quality of the spectrum of user journeys through the digital services of governments.

A seemingly wacky set of digital activities and assets in libraries

I asked one librarian what he would change first if he had a boat load of money and it could only be spent improving his library. He said, ‘It’s such a small thing but I’d put in the ability for people to access wireless printing.’ He told me a story about all the people who come to print documents from their mobile devices and having to tell them they can only print by logging into a terminal. On the face of it this kind of situation seems nuts when held up against the roll out of 3D printers in every Scottish library service. While the aim of 3D printers and makerspaces in libraries is to appeal to new audiences, it would be cool to know that the more basic needs of existing audiences are also priorities. The latest episode of the Freakonomics podcast, In Praise of Maintenance, asks ‘Has our culture’s obsession with innovation led us to neglect the fact that things also need to be taken care of?’ It is a must listen for those of us grappling with modernising and future proofing public services.

Libraries rule

One of the librarians I talked to over the weekend just couldn’t believe folk were taking the time to participate in the event and that people were actually interested in libraries all the way from strategy to delivery. Some people were totally surprised to find out about all the things libraries do and what they offer beyond lending. It is an affliction of public servants that they don’t usually recognise how interesting and important their work is and most librarians I met last weekend were firmly in that camp. Product Forge is lighting my fire for stacks of reasons but one of the biggest is it is bringing people together who would otherwise never reasonably meet. Not only are these people meeting but they are carrying out deep interactions that result in valuable relationships. I know from experience that working in public service is an isolating experience and, in my case, was also a deskilling experience. Folk need a nudge to get out, look at the landscape and mix with people who are not strictly working in their same field or discipline. None of us who work to serve the public should be working in isolation and we should all definitely be working better with citizens so thanks to Product Forge, SLIC and Carnegie Trust for helping with the nudge.

Creative and tech solutions for Edinburgh’s refugees

Earlier this year my friend Alistair Dinnie got in touch to float an idea. Alistair, Refugee and Migration Programme Manager at Edinburgh Council, had given a talk to a group of people in Edinburgh who are interested in supporting refugees and other new migrants to settle in the city. The main thing Alistair was thinking about was how information on settling in Edinburgh can be put together so it is useful and useable to those coming to a totally unfamiliar place. A woman approached Alistair after his talk and suggested he look to Germany to see how they are creating smartphone apps to help newcomers integrate. Alistair got in touch with me to discuss how we could explore technological solutions locally and linked me with the woman who approached him, Rachel, who is working with others to set up a City of Sanctuary in Edinburgh. I linked Rachel with Andy Hyde, formerly of the ALISS team and top notch organising via networking ensued.

Many months and many emails later, we are taking links further and have organised an asset mapping event being held in November. We recognised early on there are a large number of disparate organisations and interest groups in Edinburgh that do or will be able to support new migrants so the event in November will be an effort to actually map out services, assets, activites and resources and to capture local knowledge. While the event itself is interesting and exciting, thinking about the potential use of the data and information that is produced during the mapping is especially exciting to me. What sorts of digital outputs or artistically creative things could be made from pen to paper maps, written lists, ad hoc drawings and scribbly notes?

This is a shout out to anyone in creative industry or tech who is interested in making cool things with the information that comes out of the mapping day. Sign up for the event here and help us think about what is possible. Alternatively comment here, get me on Twitter or email me if you want to talk one to one.

It will all be OK, right?


It’s that time of year again, the time during which I roll out all the reasons and excuses for not blogging regularly. I was making these excuses to the inimitable Dan Slee last week so he set me a six week blogging challenge to help me get over myself and I’m grabbing it. I’ve fallen into the crazy situation a lot of other freelancers fall into: you’re so busy advising other people to do a thing that you don’t do the thing yourself. For me that’s blogging and generally regularly creating and circulating great digital content for myself so let’s see if this gets me jump started. I’ve got a stack of disparate things to share and think out loud about. I’ll kick off with a personal update.

In the year and a bit since my last update, things have been great. My time as Digital Engagement Manager with the Scottish Government ended in the winter- I had to leave because I had hit the 23 month threshold for contracting in the Scottish Government. I had mixed feelings about having to leave; I *loved* the work I was doing but I could feel the organisation was not entirely ready for my mojo. So with a few quiet drinks with government colleagues, I was headed toward the world of financial insecurity in exchange for taking control over my working life.

The Fear

I had to set up a limited company in order to contract with the Scottish Government. I decided I would not look for a job after leaving the place and that I would give freelancing a proper go because I had the company all set up. This gave me The Fear which in turn motivated me to go out and try to smash it. But I didn’t know I might go about the smashing. I think I have a good reputation and I do have a strong professional network but the idea of articulating my offer, marketing my ‘brand’ and learning how to completely manage all my time and work was paralyzing (to this day I don’t have it all cracked.) Everything seemed urgent, too risky and every decision felt like it was probably wrong. The realisation about how much I had been rewarded for dependence as an employee hit me pretty hard too so all in all I was on a few steep learning curves.


Hesitating about an important life decision is annoying. My gut feeling was if I didn’t at least try to strike out on my own I would kick myself. I got to a point where I had to stop procrastinating because it was counterproductive, threatening my ability to pay rent and keeping me from being creative. Here I am nine months later working for myself out of the amazing Creative Floor at Codebase in Edinburgh. I’ve managed to land a few really fantastic projects and the confidence I need to pursue collaborations and business ideas is growing with experience. I still have an identity crisis (Do I promote me as me or am I my business?), I still struggle with quoting, business accountancy still scares the shit out of me and I still worry that next month I will be destitute. I have Imposter Syndrome. But I’m doing it and I have a some things in the works that I’m pretty sure you’ll be interested in. Watch this space…

Be #upfront

Mixed ideas

I’m part of a growing network of people who would like to make it easier for conference and workshop organisers to have a wider variety of speakers at their events and to help those who are less confident speakers gain the confidence to represent different points of view at events. It’s win-win!

Although I work alongside a lot of different people, I don’t often see them represented as speakers at events and recently I have been the only female on panels, speaker lineups and leading workshops. On one hand it can make me feel like the token but I have to remember that what I have to say is indeed valuable so token or not, I’ll own it anyway.

My pal Lauren Currie came up with the idea of #upfront. It’s a new approach to bring people together and to kick off a community for speaker curation that will bring different ideas, perspectives and conversations to events. Where people feel they would like to hone their speaking skills, #upfront is there for them too.

This isn’t some nutty fourth wave feminism stunt, it’s a slight dig at conference organisers who mainly feature homogenous panels, it’s not PC gone mad and it’s not lowering the bar. It’s an opportunity to open up discussion and facilitate strong links between people with different backgrounds.

Why mixing it up is important

Because science

Research here there and everywhere demonstrates the benefit of working and thinking in groups with mixed backgrounds. From this Scientific American article: ‘Decades of research by organizational scientists, psychologists, economists and demographers show that socially diverse groups (that is, those with a diversity of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation) are more innovative than homogenous groups. This is not simply because people with different backgrounds bring new information. Simply interacting with individuals who are different forces group members to prepare better, to anticipate alternative viewpoints and to expect that reaching consensus will take effort.’

Because it’s right

I hope I don’t surprise anyone too much but the general population isn’t largely made up of cisgender white men. A lack of wider representation on a speaker lineup at events is alienating for a lot of people (including me) and, frankly, it’s getting boring. I challenge you to not do well to predict what will be said at the next all white man panel event you attend in your field or industry. It means we’re not really learning anymore.

Because it challenges status quo

I’ve had people tell me that all white man panels reflect the current state of management and leadership in most industries and sectors and that’s that. Unfortunately that may well be the case but who set the rule that the guy with the loftiest title is the most informed or most capable? From James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds: ‘Heretical or not, it’s the truth: the value of expertise is, in many contexts, overrated….the fundamental truth about expertise is that it is spectacularly narrow. However well informed and sophisticated an expert is, his advice and predictions should be pooled with those of others to get the most out of him.’ (pp 32-34)

Being an #upfront ally means recognizing privilege and handing the mic over to those who don’t really have a voice on the speaking circuit at the moment. Maybe that is the young person just entering the workforce (like Leila Willingham who spoke at Lauren’s latest upfront session) or maybe it is the non-white woman executive, the admin assistant, the local small business owner…you get the idea.

Being #upfront means you can help weave the rich stories and provide more insightful learning and knowledge to the people you speak to at larger events.

Call to action

If you would like to be upfront and don’t know where to start…

If you are a conference organiser and you want to be part of upfront…

…do one or more of these things

Tweet Lauren @redjotter

Tweet Leah @LockhartL

Share this message using #upfront

Email Lauren

Email Leah

Alternative metrics for public services

alternative metric

During the social indicator trend of the 1970’s, specifically in the US government, ‘Choices of indicators were not selected explicitly to address defined policy objectives, nor were they linked to policy proposals in areas where there was a public commitment to action. Indicators were not designed to characterize issues narrowly or to evaluate policies. The choices of what indicators to include may have represented results of negotiation among agency and social report staff but the task had not included public and Congressional debate. Thus, the implications of the indicators were neither salient nor known to these audiences. Moreover, there was no public obligation to examine the data during policy debate in a way that might have forced their linkage to issues.’

This is a quote from Judith Eleanor Innes’s Knowledge and Public Policy: The Search for Meaningful Indicators and it has helped me think through the idea of altmetrics for public services. In academia altmetrics is the practice of looking at the social and cultural impact of research publications by gathering data about citations from around the web- it is an extension of looking at the impact of research by the number of citations in research publications- but we can reimagine altmetrics in public services as citations made in different ways. Maybe something along the lines of… citations made is services accessed that made a positive impact on someone’s life or citations made is the sentiment from web and social media content created by citizens and stakeholders. See what I mean? Stick with me. I acknowledge these are not fully formed ideas but I think they have teeth and there are miles of space for discussion.

Some current national indicators, like ‘Widen use of the Internet’, are measured against the results of just one piece of research- the Scottish Household Survey (SHS). Of the 17,000 people asked to take part in the household survey, nearly 6,000 don’t follow through. The people approached to take part are as a random selection as possible in order to give everyone an opportunity to be selected. An issue, however, is the responses that are taken must be representative and for that reason, weighting is applied to the responses from profiles of people who tend to not take up the offer to take part in the research. For example, 60% of the interview invitations are taken up by older women with men aged 16-25 hardly taking part so the responses of men aged 16-25 are weighted as 1.2 of a response. The weighting of some answers may be considered representative in a traditional analytical community but how can government look at altmetrics for indicators like ‘Widen use of the internet’, which is ripe for near real time subjective data collection through agencies working largely with the populations who don’t take part in SHS. What creative alternative ways could other indicator owners tap into technology and digital tools that collect all kinds of data to complement single sources of information by which the indicator is measured?

Here are two ways we might look at altmetrics for Scottish public services:

  • Social listening: I’ve been talking about this for some time. Social listening and online community management are pretty standard in the commercial sector. Could this same kind of activity be carried out in public services to inform how well they are performing? It might not be so straightforward right now as social listening in government bodies is a grey area. Is it actually spying when government does it? What can we do to make the rules and expectations around public service social listening clearer? Would data and information from social listening be good altmetrics for public services?
  • Detailed data from public services: The creation and development of SCVO’s Good HQ could provide some incredible possibilities for using data to create altmetrics for national and local outcomes or indicators. The surge of open data activity in Scotland will also give us access to new information and creative ways to mash it up.

Though the social indicator movement has been seen by some as a failure, Innes says there is a legacy of the movement and that it helped clarify ‘more is required to inform policy than simply producing academically certified data and handing it to policy makers.’ Traditionally, at least at central government level, analysts have created a selection of indicators and outcomes based on things they know can be measured. As we go into a period of re-evaluating the Scottish National Outcomes tied up with the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill, let’s start thinking about the altmetrics that can be accessed to complement indicators and outcomes based on existing statistical research methods and topics. Let’s be creative and think about what we can bring into the mix. Something community based and dynamic, as real time as data can get and that can be used alongside traditional consultation as set out in the National Outcomes section of the Community Empowerment Bill.